TAMPA, Fla. — Five things to know about the Tampa Bay Rays as they start spring training camp:
GETTING THEIR MONEY’S WORTH: The focus this winter was on keeping together last year’s team, which won 92 games and lost to Boston in the ALDS. That included a decision, at least for now, to not trade ace David Price, who was given a $14 million, one-year salary that’s a big chunk of a projected opening-day payroll of nearly $80 million — a franchise high. The budget-conscious Rays not only expect to contend for the AL East title, but feel they have what it takes to win it all. "This is clearly as good of a team as we could ask for, given our (financial) constraints," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said after signing free agent closer Grant Balfour. The team’s other offseason moves included re-signing first baseman James Loney and trading for catcher Ryan Hanigan, reliever Heath Bell and infielder Logan Forsythe. No club’s done more with limited financial resources the past six years. Tampa Bay’s 550 wins since 2008 are the second-most in the majors behind the Yankees’ 564.
MOUND DRIVEN: The Rays thrive on pitching and defense, boasting one of baseball’s top rotations and a deep, versatile bullpen. Tampa Bay posted a franchise-record 17 shutouts in 2013, and the club’s 32 shutouts over the past two seasons match the Dodgers for the most in the majors. The Rays allowed one run or less in 39 games last season, most in the AL since the 2005 Angels. Defensively, they committed 59 errors, second fewest in the majors behind Baltimore’s 54.
SCORE SOME MORE: While the Rays have never had an overpowering lineup, they’ve still found ways to win 90-plus games the past four seasons, five of six overall. They were ninth in the AL in runs scored a year ago, however, there’s potential to be more potent in 2014 with Hanigan added to the mix and reigning rookie of the year Wil Myers and late 2013 addition David DeJesus in the lineup for full seasons.
SHUT THE DOOR: Closer Fernando Rodney is gone after two successful seasons in Tampa Bay, but manager Joe Maddon feels good about replacing him with Balfour, who signed a $12 million, two-year deal after converting 62 of 67 save opportunities for Oakland over the past two seasons. Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo also are options for closing games and helping Balfour remain fresh. That’s a luxury for a team that customarily enters spring training without a specific reliever designated for the closer’s role. "We’re actually going to use the C-word this year, which is unique for me and for us," Maddon said. "To have all these different tools in the toolbox, all of a sudden, it’s kind of neat."
KEEPING IT INTERESTING: Maddon is known for creating a relaxed clubhouse atmosphere. Outside of demanding players play hard every day, the manager has few team rules. He keeps things light and fun, and it’s difficult to argue with the results. During a tough stretch last season, among the things Maddon did to liven up the routine was bring a music DJ, merengue band and even a cockatoo into the clubhouse to provide pregame entertainment.